The largest tributary flowing into the Santa Ana River south of the Prado Dam is Santiago Creek and few residents of Orange County even know it exists. One of the longest waterways entirely within Orange County it starts in the Santa Ana Mountains and ends at the Santa Ana River, and it flows through the cities of Orange, Villa Park and Santa Ana.
It’s also the last naturalized creek in Santa Ana, with multiple varieties of trees, some almost 100 years old and 80 feet tall, and home to federally protected bird species as well as hawks, owls, parrots and other wildlife and specifically designated as a Bird Sanctuary.
In Santa Ana’s portion of Santiago Creek the Chicago District of the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) wants to remove essentially all of the trees and other vegetation adjacent to the Creek and build a 6,400 foot long trapezoidal flood control channel lined with riprap.
The Chicago District USACE’s mandate for this project does not include habitat preservation in Santa Ana or stormwater capture despite California’s historic drought and need to preserve water. The plan is just to move water asap towards the ocean. This project is the final segment of a regional flood control project originally authorized and designed in the 1980’s, and with minor modifications from the original plan seems to be quickly proceeding towards final approval and construction.
The project as proposed is opposed by essentially all of the local residents, including also federal, state, county and municipal representatives. But the USACE is a huge and powerful organization, funds have been authorized and the USACE wants to move forward. Far better ways exist to accomplish USACE flood control goals that also protect natural habitat, conserve more stormwater and create additional greenspace that Orange County needs.
But first a major question: why is this project assigned to the Chicago District of the USACE and not the Los Angeles District? The Los Angeles District USACE includes all of Southern California from Vandenberg to San Diego, parts of Nevada and Utah, and all of Arizona. Orange County is within the Los Angeles District and definitely in Southern California.
Not that there’s anything wrong with the Chicago District USACE, but areas encompassed by the Los Angeles District have things in common. There’s a historic drought affecting all of these areas. Riparian habitat locations are common in other parts of the country, but they’re extremely rare in Southern California and should be understood as more valuable to residents. The USACE is a huge organization and like all organizations needs to allocate resources and may compete internally for projects and funding, and there are undoubtedly differences of opinion between USACE districts. When the Santiago Creek project was assigned to Chicago it seems that Orange County may have missed out on opportunities it might have otherwise had were management and design of the project assigned locally. Ecosystem restoration projects for the improvement of riparian habitat form a major part of the Los Angeles District’s workload. It’s become part of their DNA and they’ve developed considerable expertise in flood control and protecting nature at the same time. Unfortunately not part of the Chicago District USACE’s plan. And while not the most important issue it would seem more cost efficient to manage a California project from California.
And there’s that huge Los Angeles District USACE project to restore the Los Angeles River ecosystem projected to cost over $1.6 billion when finally completed. The USACE cemented over much of the LA River 100 years ago following flood control procedures thought appropriate for that era. The Los Angeles District USACE is in the process of partially undoing what they did then.
From the Los Angeles River Ecosystem Restoration Project Summary:
“Restoration measures include creation and reestablishment of historic riparian and freshwater marsh habitat to support increased populations of wildlife and enhance habitat connectivity.”
“Restoration also includes the re-introduction of ecological and fluvial processes through a more natural hydrologic regime, which reconnects the river to historic floodplains and tributaries, reduces flow velocities, increases infiltration, and improves natural sediment processes.”
The Los Angeles District USACE restoration of the Los Angeles River seems an acknowledgement that the Chicago District’s current methodology for Santiago Creek flood control is something that needs updating. Maybe there are differences in approach, environmental sensitivities and regional needs between USACE districts. Or possibly the Los Angeles District is just 40 years ahead and focuses more on best practices.
Examples of where the Los Angeles River is now and what the Los Angeles District USACE intends it to be can be found in their Restoration Plan. A couple examples are shown below. The Chicago District’s proposal for Santiago Creek seems to go 180 degrees in the opposite direction.
There’s also a mismatch between the ability of Southern California residents to impact policies and plans created by the Chicago District vs. the Los Angeles District USACE. The Los Angeles District specifically mentions the diverse political interests it represents: “Eight U.S. senators, 48 U.S. representatives, and the governors of California, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada.”
The Chicago District does not represent nor is directly accountable to California residents or to its political representatives. Nothing wrong with the Chicago District USACE, but its values, priorities and political interests aren’t the same as those of most local residents.
One example: Southern Californians especially value their urban forests for the aesthetics of the trees themselves, and also for their value to the environment through carbon capture and heat reduction during the summer. Just as immigrants came from all over the world, trees and other plants were brought from other places to Southern California. The Chicago District USACE plan for Santiago Creek acknowledges there is actually a substantial loss when someone cuts down mature native trees like Sycamore or California Live Oak (but they still plan to cut them down anyway). But as to the removal of mature non-native trees like Eucalyptus, Black Locust, Pine, Cedar, Palm and others? Removing them gets minimal concern. Especially in our urban forests, Southern Californians value all of their trees, native and imported. That’s who we are.
Here are just a few examples of Santiago Creek’s trees that could be lost:
Returning to the specific issues relating to protecting Santiago Creek, residents of the cities of Orange and Villa Park (adjacent to upper portions of Santiago Creek) have been advocating for preservation of wetlands and creation of additional greenspace adjacent to Santiago Creek to act as safety valves in the event of huge storm events. This would allow for additional stormwater capture and treat water as the valuable resource that California desperately needs. Capturing stormwater in greenspace areas allows for percolation into groundwater basins while naturally filtering out toxins. Doing these things upstream would also allow for reduced uncontrolled water flows downstream and mitigate the need for major habitat destruction in Santa Ana.
Santa Ana is trying to preserve its remaining natural riparian habitat, mature trees and wildlife. Great horned owls and red tail hawks have nesting sites. Preservation of natural habitat impacts the quality of life of all Santa Ana residents and not just those living near Santiago Creek. Orange County as a whole would also lose a major natural habitat area and part of its urban forest. We have already lost too much. Flood control projects in Orange County, California should conform to the current needs and values of Orange County residents.
The Chicago District USACE released an Environmental Assessment of the Santiago Creek flood control project on September 15, 2023 and a 60-day public comment period was negotiated to respond with comments and suggestions to the USACE.
Congressman Lou Correa, our local Congressional Representative stated: “My constituents and I understand the need for flood control measures in our neighborhoods, and in fact, many of my constituents have proposed alternative solutions that deserve serious consideration.”
“Thus far, their thoughtful ideas, including expanding basins and reservoirs upstream of the Creek, are non-starters with the Corps – and it is incredibly disappointing.”
Restoration of the Los Angeles River didn’t just start because someone made a suggestion. It took the efforts of thousands of concerned citizens pushing to make things better. It took political representatives supporting their constituents to make things better. The entire Santiago Creek watershed needs protection and support from local political representatives, non-profit organizations and concerned citizens to find better solutions for flood control than doing what was done to the Los Angeles River 100 years ago. Please send your comments to the USACE . Please ask your political representatives to support you and maybe push for more involvement by the Los Angeles District USACE. There’s also a public meeting on October 2, 2023 (details here). Please attend if you can. Thank you for your help.
Les Hall is a resident of the Fisher Park neighborhood of Santa Ana. A native Californian, he lived in Los Angeles before moving to Orange County. Contrasted with infill development in the LA area, most new OC development involved replacing natural areas and farmland with residential and commercial development. Much of what was lost wasn’t fully appreciated until after it was gone.
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